A Slimy Kind of Strategy

website slimy strategyHe was a well-dressed utility company executive in his early forties and he was walking in my direction. I had hoped for a little peace and quiet during my lunch break in the cafeteria, before the negotiation resumed and I would have to take up my mediator role again. But he was heading toward me, and he looked concerned.

“Lucy? May I have a word with you, just briefly?” he asked.

“Sure, have a seat,” and I motioned to the chair across from me.

He landed abruptly, and blurted out, “I need some advice about dealing with Indians. I know you’ve worked with Navajos a lot, and we had a kind of difficult experience last month.”

Now he had my attention. “Tell me about it. I’m happy to listen, and maybe I’ll have some ideas.”

The utility company wanted a right-of-way from the Navajo Nation for a transmission line, and the first step, they were told, was to make a presentation at the local community level. This meant getting on the agenda for the monthly meeting at the chapter house (seat of local government) in a particularly remote area of the Nation. My confidant told me that he and his utility company comrades had wondered how to dress, and had decided that suits and ties would show respect. I could picture them, arriving at the chapter house, the picture of power. They were wearing their power suits, their PowerPoint presentations were ready, and they were offering powerful handshakes all around to any Navajos they saw.

But he confessed to feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps they were over-dressed, he mused, and everyone with whom he shook hands offered him a dead-fish style handshake in return. The presentations seemed to go well, although the interpretation certainly did take a long time, he remembered. And there were moments when the audience laughed during the interpretation, even though he couldn’t remember that he had said anything funny. Sometimes he would speak a long time, and the interpretation would be only a couple of sentences. It was unsettling. I reassured him that he had done everything just right. The limp handshake was traditional, nothing to be offended by. As for the interpretation, well, it was very challenging to try to translate certain modern concepts and technical terms, and it could take a long time. And, yes, Navajos did like to laugh, and perhaps the interpreter used a comical word here and there.

But what the utility executive really wanted to ask about was the meal. Was it normal, he said, for them to serve guests a kind of watery and slimy stew with pieces of sheep intestine in it? They ate it, he quickly added, knowing how rude it would be to refuse a meal served, but, and here he wrinkled his nose at the memory, it certainly was slimy.

Ah, yes, I said, it was a very special meal indeed, only served to special guests, and they had been right to eat it, even if it was awfully slimy. I didn’t add that they had been served a Navajo power lunch, the final touch on a strategy designed to put the powerful adversary off balance. And very effective it was.

I love that story and the images it conjures up. It is a perfect illustration of the power that the powerless can exert.  Just as a lawyer might use legal jargon to intimidate the opposition, or a developer might imply that vast amounts of money were backing him, so a minority group can use language, religion, even food to gain the upper hand.  At the chapter house that afternoon, the Navajos used culture in a cunning way to gain the upper hand in a situation where they would otherwise have been outdone by the utility company visitors. And, yes, the underdog succeeded. The right-of-way was negotiated to go around this chapter’s land entirely, just as the members had wanted.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts or experiences with the powerless exerting power.

20 thoughts on “A Slimy Kind of Strategy

  1. Wonderful story. I remember the first time I encountered the feather light handshake and wondering what it meant. And why we are supposed to cultivate a firm, “manly” handshake. Power is not what it appears.

    1. Thanks, Judith. I like your adjective “feather light” rather than the “dead fish” I usually hear, and often use, to describe the Navajo handshake. And it’s curious how quick we are to judge a foreign way of doing things — like the feather light handshake — by our own cultural standards. “This person must not like me,” “This person must be weak, rude, etc.” When the truth is that we have just encountered a different cultural style.

      1. you’re so “on” Lucy. I pictured the movie “Men in Black,” encroaching on Dine.

  2. Lucy – This wonderful story gives new meaning to “variety meets” nevertheless the wary guests had guts.

    1. They did have guts, you’re right….and they ate guts,too. But seriously I admire the suits for going out there with a respectful attitude and being open to learning.

  3. Lucy,
    Do you know James Scott’s book, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance? As the title suggests, it’s about how colonized peoples express (sometimes subtly, sometimes violently) their refusal to submit to their oppression. Resistance can run the gamut from the story you tell to what (depending on your position) can be viewed as terrorism. How is one to characterize the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation?
    John

    1. Thanks, John, for the book recommendation. And you’re right, there is a wide spectrum of resistance. I like this super-subtle version, where it seems that the “oppressor” doesn’t really know what hit him. As for Palestine, I suppose the full spectrum is being played out there, too, although we mostly hear about the extreme acts. That’s an overwhelming topic. I may write about our trip to Jerusalem last year in the coming months, if I can figure out what to say….

  4. Hi Lucy — I second the recommendation for Weapons of the Weak. And I cringed as soon as I read “powerful handshake”! — Sharon

    1. Thanks, Sharon. I know — there’s so much to learn and so many faux pas to make in the meantime. We are studying Japanese in preparation for a trip to Japan in the fall…where I know we will be faux-pas-ing constantly!

  5. Lucy, I liked this ‘power’ story, tho’ I’m always a bit un-nerved by the passive-aggressive option. I don’t know about the handshake, I’m not sure I’ve ever shaken a Navajo hand and encountered the limp, although in my experience, women do it all the time. I take it as lacking in confidence when it comes to women, but I could be wrong. The stew? Well, that’s just hostile and aggressive. I guess I just prefer folks to be way more straightforward – but I’m not culturally very versed when it comes to Native American style. Myv.

    1. Good to hear from you, Myv. Passive aggressive may not be ideal but in a case like this I think it’s a good option. What else would have had that same impact? The company was prepared with endless slides and arguments to refute any direct objections. The Navajos’ only hope was to catch them off guard… Or at least that’s my thought.

  6. p.s. I would think the suits the utility men chose to wear have quite a lot in common with the stew, when it comes to power, taste and appearances!

  7. In the excellent movie “Merchants of Doubt” several people including ex-congressman Bob Inglis changed their minds after knowing the facts and it’s interesting to see the effect on their lives. It’s hard enough to change your mind but it can reek havoc too.
    I often think about the fact that we are, as they say, “preaching to the choir”.

    1. You’re so right, Alice. It takes courage to change your mind….and turn into a traitor in the eyes of former friends and supporters. I can hardly imagine it. In fact it is kind of interesting to test yourself — pick a stand you would never give up, change your mind, and imagine how you would explain yourself and how you would take the heat.

  8. Not sure I would have had the guts to go through with this but I love your point that learning & listening must come first.

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